Thursday, August 31, 2017

Letting go

Yesterday I noticed for the thousandth time how snugly a child fits into my arms. She fell asleep in the car, and as I carried her into the house, she was just conscious enough to wriggle in close and hold on tight. They fit a bit differently as five-year-olds than as newborns, and for different lengths of time. But when you see an adult carrying a child who wants to be held, can you deny the perfection of arm lengths and head angles? We were made for this.

I'm currently reading a great book called Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. One chapter points out that good parents adjust the boundaries for each phase of a child's life. Babies need attachment. A six-month-old can be overwhelmed by a parent even stepping out of the room momentarily, unsure if the parent will ever return. However, every toddler learns the word "No" and begins to separate herself from her parents by asserting her own wants and opinions. Boundaries appropriate for a 16-year-old may endanger a 6-year-old; boundaries appropriate for a 6-year-old may smother a 16-year-old. Growing up and gaining independence is a gradual process.

This and all other photos in this post are by Matthew Francis Pye. 
In general, this works beautifully, though not without bumps and tears along the way. But sometimes you don't have the luxury of holding a child's hand until she's ready to let go. That's the case with the kids I nanny.

Their birth mom gave up her rights soon after delivery.

Their adoptive mom passed away in 2014, before the youngest one's third birthday.

Their aunt moved away earlier this year.

Now I'm joining the ranks of maternal figures who haven't stuck around to see these kids reach adulthood.

In June 2015, when I met them, I was already guessing I'd be with them little more than two years before returning to Cambodia. I knew they weren't mine to keep, but I threw my heart into it anyway, about four days a week. I loved them through hugs and laughs, homework and room cleanings, tantrums and time-outs. I brought them with me to church, to the park, to my house, to the playground. They were the source of my tears, my prayers, and (some can attest) too many of my stories. They felt almost like my kids. But I couldn't offer them permanence.

Once or twice, early on, the younger two tried to call me "Mom." Nope. The oldest asked me, "Will you still be here when I'm in fourth grade?" Absolutely. "What about fifth grade?" Um... not sure but I doubt it.

Knowing that my time at their house was limited, I've tried from the beginning to encourage independence. The kids have started putting away their own laundry, doing homework without me constantly by their side, resolving disputes without my intervention. The oldest makes great spaghetti and scrambled eggs (not together!); the middle one learned yesterday how to use a carrot peeler; the youngest can buckle herself in. I'm proud of the progress they've made. They're not grown-ups, but they're growing up.

Mary Poppins the movie character inspires me. She makes kids do the right thing - and enjoy it. Mary Poppins the book character infuriates me. When the kids worry about her abandoning them, she always snaps dismissively, "I'll stay till the wind blows," or "I'll stay until my necklace chain breaks." In other words, "None of your business how long I'll stick around."

When I was young, reading her words always gave me chills. What's scarier to a child than unreliable grown-ups? That's the last legacy I wanted to leave these kids. So I've tried to be clear about my timetable, without needlessly rubbing it in. The little two especially have a hazier grasp on time. When the middle one heard six months ago that I was definitely moving back, he was devastated. I had to carefully explain to him that we still had all of spring and all of summer to enjoy together. Then he put it out of his mind almost completely.

There are still unresolved questions: Will my new Cambodian phone let me text with the oldest? How often will we skype? Will e-mail work for them? When will I visit? I'm trying to reassure them that I'll be emotionally available, without making promises I can't keep. It won't be the same, that's for sure.

The past month, we've had some special times together. Trips into Philly to a fun new playground and a historic battleship. Portraits. Tonight's our backyard campout. I'm a bit quicker to initiate hugs and a bit slower to say "downie brownie" when my arms ache from the younger two's "uppie guppy" requests. I want them to be convinced to their core that my leaving has nothing to do with them. I've shown them a video of my Cambodia teammates and invited them to hear me talk about my plans for life in Cambodia, helping them glimpse my vision for moving back there.

Preparing to leave has been a heart-wrenching act of faith. How do you tell kids to walk without you by their side, when they're still small enough to be held sometimes? It's been great to see people stepping up, though. Their dad is letting my mom take over part of my role with homework, hugs, and household. People at my church have grown attached to them and are looking out for them in various ways. We're going today to meet their new teachers - teachers that I've been praying would love these kids well. I'm hopeful that these kids will continue to get an "uppie" when they need it, so that they can keep learning to stand on their own two feet.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

My thesis, explained to 6th graders

I recently watched a video about a contest called "Dance your Ph.D." It was impressive and overwhelming. People turn their extremely complicated research into a dance performance to help everyone understand it.

Last year, when I was getting my master's degree, I wrote a thesis. It's a big research paper, kind of like a Ph.D. dissertation, but much easier and shorter. Even so, I'm not very good at explaining it in regular words, let alone in a dance. But what good is research that nobody understands? For eight months I've been procrastinating on coming back to it, but now I'm going to try using words that people use in real life. It won't be nearly as cool as a dance, but it will be better than 97 pages of gibberish, which is what I wrote in my thesis.

A thesis starts with a question (or a few questions) and then looks for the answers using research. My main question asked, "Do Cambodian students who participate in student council have more emotional intelligence and act more like the Three Goods (good students, friends, and children) than Cambodian students who don't participate?" My hypothesis said yes. Actually, the results didn't show much of a difference, which wasn't very surprising.

Every school in Cambodia has to have a student council starting in fourth grade. But unlike in America, they don't usually make a lot of decisions for the school or help communicate between students and teachers. At many or most schools, there's a list of student council members, but they don't actually meet or do anything - it's just to keep the school out of trouble with the government. At other schools, the student council helps everyone follow the school rules, and gets students in trouble when they disobey. At just a few schools, they have other responsibilities like teaching students about hygiene or organizing projects where students can help the community. It makes sense that if the student council doesn't do anything, its students won't act very different from everyone else at their school.

My follow-up question asked, "How do Cambodian students and school leaders picture emotional intelligence and the Three Goods?" I was curious whether most of them had clear ideas that were similar to each other's ideas. I also wanted to see whether they thought that emotional intelligence and the Three Goods were mostly the same or different. There were some important similarities, but the Three Goods was a lot more about people's concrete actions, not just their attitudes or people skills. For example, people said a good student should come on time to class, and a good child should help with cooking and cleaning.

Why did I pick those questions? I wanted to learn more about Cambodian schools and young people, but I didn't have a specific idea of what to study. My professor had helped other graduate students do a project on two Cambodian schools where the student councils are very active. These were two of the six schools in my study. The Cambodian government says that student councils should help students with the Three Goods, which means help them become good students, friends, and children. But the government never explains what it means to be those things. I'd heard that a lot of American schools are trying to help their students develop emotional intelligence, which means how well people deal with emotions (their own and other people's) to accomplish their goals. Emotional intelligence is useful for relationships and learning in many different ways, and I wondered whether it was similar to Cambodians' ideas about being good students, children, and friends. If I found out that student councils were good at helping Cambodians with the Three Goods and emotional intelligence, I could recommend that more Cambodian schools develop strong student council programs.

I looked for answers from three main sources:

  • One source was a literature review, which means I read lots of articles and books to find out what other researches had learned about related topics. 
  • Another source was surveys that I gave to Cambodian students from six different high schools. The surveys were mostly multiple-choice so that I could turn all the students' answers into numbers (choice A = 1, choice B = 2, etc.) and then do computer tests called statistical analysis to look for differences between groups of students in their survey answers. 
  • The third source was talking with people in Cambodian schools. I interviewed school leaders and had focus groups with about eight students at a time from several of the schools. I asked each group a set of questions and took notes on their answers. Since they spoke Khmer, not English, I needed a translator because my Khmer isn't good enough to understand everything they said. A lot of my questions asked for explanations or examples of emotional intelligence and the Three Goods. Other questions asked about the influence of Student Council on students at their school. 

My favorite part was probably reading for the literature review. I learned so many interesting things about Cambodians! Sometimes it wasn't quite on topic and I couldn't include it in my final thesis paper. For example, I started out with a question about what it means in Cambodian culture to be a citizen. Sometimes their options for participating in the community and nation are different than our options in America, or sometimes they have different views of participating because of their culture. I read about a TV show that helps teach Cambodian young people how they can participate as citizens. I also read about a lot of ways that schools around the world organize and use their student councils. Finally, I read a lot about resiliency, which is a set of things inside and around a person that help him or her to stay strong and be OK when bad things happen. I loved learning about resiliency, even though it wasn't a main focus of my thesis.

The surveys were tricky for several reasons. The translation from English to Khmer wasn't always clear, even though three Cambodians worked on it with me. I paid a Cambodian man to talk with all the schools, explain the surveys, and make sure enough students took the surveys. But one school forgot to give out the surveys and made him come back the next week. At two schools, he arrived when students were already taking their final exams for the year, so many students never took the survey. At another school, many students skipped almost half the survey questions. Maybe my survey was too long and they didn't have time, or maybe a teacher told them to skip those questions. After I saw all the problems, I wished that I had gone to all the schools with this man to watch students fill out the surveys and avoid some of these problems. But by then it was too late, so I just did the best I could with the surveys I had. It was good enough for my thesis, but it made it much harder to trust that the survey results showed an accurate picture of the students. Another limit is that students answered the questions about themselves, and many students picked the same answer (for example, "Strongly agree") for many questions in a row. So it's not clear if they really read each question and thought about it.

One survey result was really clear and surprising for me. I thought students might vote for student council members who had good grades, or who had better emotional intelligence and people skills, or who were good friends and kind to everyone. Instead, student council members were older than average for their grade, and most of them had repeated a grade. That made me think about how Cambodians always show respect to people who are older than them. Maybe they felt like the oldest students in the class should also be the leaders - even if they were the oldest because they had been struggling to learn. I did find, though, that student council members tended to have more friends. When I saw that result, I wondered: Were students with a lot of friends so popular that it was easy for them to be elected? Or did something about their actions and attitude make them good friends and good student council members? It's common for research projects to end in more questions than answers, and that was definitely my experience. The more I learned, the more questions I had.

I liked the interviews because I got to see people's faces and hear their voices and their own words. But the time always seemed so short! Some questions were also tricky for people to answer. One interesting thing was that it helped me see the differences between Student Council programs. At some schools, everyone liked and respected the Student Council, but not at every school. At some schools, students felt like they'd learned a lot about leadership through joining Student Council, but not at every school. At one school, the principal described the Student Council very differently than the students who were participating in it. He said they'd been active all year, but they said they'd only been elected a couple weeks earlier, near the end of the school year (about the time that I contacted the school). I think the principal was doing something called saving face, which means lying so you don't embarrass yourself. I tried not to embarrass him, but I think he could still tell that I didn't always believe him. He seemed glad when the interview was over.

My adviser tried to get me to publish my thesis in a scholarly journal, which is like a magazine full of research articles. I did a lot of work on it this spring and sent it to several journals, changing it a bit for each one to fit their requirements about the length and format. So far, none of them accepted it. That's fine with me... in fact, I'd be kind of mad at them if they did, because publishing a research article means you think they have important results that can be trusted, and I didn't feel that way about my results. Journals also tend to like results in numbers that prove one main point. I get that. But I felt like in my research, numbers were not the most important part, and I had many different observations that I found interesting.

However, I'm glad I wrote a thesis. It took lots of hard work, and it made me learn things that I never would have taken time for otherwise. Even if I didn't prove my hypothesis (which I was skeptical about from the beginning), it gave me a much clearer idea now of Cambodian young people and their schools. All these observations can stay in the back of my mind when I go back to help Cambodian teachers, and maybe they'll come in handy someday. And that's really why I wanted a master's degree in the first place.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Growing up in America

Two years ago this month, I moved back from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. My goals were as follows:
1. Get a master's degree - check
2. Take a break from Cambodia's heat and humidity - check
3. Spend time with family - check
4. Learn how to be a grown-up in America - um, how do I measure that one?

I moved to Phnom Penh at the tender age of almost-23. In Cambodia, those next six years, I learned some great local life hacks and shouldered some big responsibilities. In the US each summer, not so much. I moved back in with my parents, borrowed their cars, caught up with old friends, and rested. My only real summer responsibilities carried over from my Cambodian teaching job (reading, lesson planning, professional development), although I did occasionally help my mom weed the garden. I was basically an overgrown college kid. 

Meanwhile, it was clear that my peers were mastering some American life skills that I'd never needed to acquire, as well as a lot of cultural references that whooshed over my head. Tim Tebow? Benghazi? Parks and Rec? Gender reveal parties? Quinoa? Every year there were new things to google.

The problem is, spending time in the US while legally an adult does not necessarily make one good at adulting. I know I'm not the first millennial to discover this truth. In 2015 when I stopped working at Logos, my parents welcomed me back home rent-free, bought me a car (I eventually reimbursed them), and added me to their cell phone plan. Going back to school and getting a nannying job didn't do much to shake my self-image as that overgrown college kid. So now that my two years are up and I'm getting ready to return to Cambodia, I'm wondering how far I've come.

I'm realizing that adulting skills are quite diverse and don't come all at once. Even my friends and peers who live in the US full-time, without much help from parents, haven't necessarily needed to plan a funeral, get a reverse mortgage, or care for aging parents. That being said, there are things I'm now OK with that used to make me panic. Here are a few areas where I've improved:
  • Pumping my own gas (I even check my oil now)
  • Wearing scarves and boots
  • Selling things on Craigslist
  • Managing preschoolers
  • Negotiating with Americans
  • Parking
  • Building a fire
  • Navigating Obamacare and Medicaid
  • Handling parent-teacher conferences from the other side of the desk
  • Renting a car
  • Camping (without my parents)
  • Using a leaf blower and snow blower
  • Traveling with children
  • Making small talk with Americans who aren't my age
  • Making small talk with Americans who are my age... these last two are huge for me!
Can I say I'm all grown up now? No, but I can say I've done some growing up. I feel much more settled now in America and like my own person than I did during all those summer visits. And for that, I'm glad. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Open letter to the folks in Comparative & International Education

Last Monday, I joined many of you in folding chairs on a field for a chilly, wet morning. Normally listening to 1400+ names being called wouldn't be my idea of a good time. But I'm glad I went, because our community is worth it.

Graduates with faculty Peggy (left) and Alex (right)

Last month, Lehigh's Dean of Education announced that the Comparative and International Education (CIE) program would be "sunsetted," or phased out over the next three years. No new students would be admitted, and non-tenured faculty (essentially 2 of the 4) could seek employment elsewhere whenever an opportunity arose. So I was in the last graduating class to receive the full CIE master's degree experience. Though the sunsetting had a minimal effect on my plans, I shared in your confusion and grief and concern. I care about the faculty and students being left behind, and I'm sad that this is the context of my departure. Because overall, reflecting on my time in CIE brings me a lot of joy.

In this post, I want to acknowledge the impact that CIE has had on me over the past two years.

1. Thank you, Dr. Peggy Kong, for insisting that we keep practicing our 30-second "elevator pitches" explaining our program.

Since "comparative and international education" sounds to most people a little bit like "ghlsdfjklsdfhl," my elevator pitch has come in handy as I've explained that...

  • CIE examines the complex interactions between global, national, and regional forces in shaping schools. 
    • For example, international NGOs like the World Bank and UNICEF are encouraging developing countries to adopt certain practices in schools. But these practices need to be contextualized. Local officials, teachers, and communities all have their own ideas about what direction education should take. 
    • Likewise, some corporations seek positive press for their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs overseas. These programs create great sound bites but their real effects on communities are far from simple. 
  • It compares and contrasts aspects of school systems, often at a national level. 
    • For example, how do various countries try to prevent students from dropping out, and how do they respond to dropouts? To what degree have they succeeded, and what cultural/historical factors have influenced their success or failure?
  • It looks at educational borrowing and why it's so tempting to try, yet so difficult to achieve. 
    • For example, why can't American schools be more like Finland's? Why are China and Thailand throwing around Western educational buzzwords like "student-centered learning?" Answer: It's complicated. (Works for everything!)

2. Thank you, CIE course readings, for teaching me big words. 

Now at parties, everyone will think I'm really cool when I start discussing the hegemony of neoliberals in promoting institutional isomorphism in semi-peripheral regions.

Thanks also for showing me what's way more fun than parties: reading articles that contain sentences like "The repatriation or export of the designs and commodities of difference continuously exacerbates the internal politics of majoritarianism and homogenization, which is most frequently played out in debates over heritage." I've always been a social outcast nerd, but you have taken it to a whole new level.

With Sothy

3. Thank you, Dr. Sothy Eng, for advising me.

If it weren't for Sothy, would I even have come to Lehigh? Probably, because
1. It's a quality program.
2. It's less than an hour from my parents' house.
2. It's by far the cheapest school I applied to, even without the tuition remission that came with becoming Sothy's graduate assistant.

However, Sothy was definitely a big selling point. He's Cambodian and he's one of the main faculty in the CIE program. Need I say more? He met up with me and a Cambodian alumna in Phnom Penh in winter 2014, when I was first looking into the program and he was conducting a tour for some Lehigh undergrads. 

At that initial meeting, Sothy told me about some cool opportunities, like the internship and assisting him, that I didn't want to count on when I decided to come... but he later helped make them happen. I'm so glad he advocated for me. He pushed me to master new skills, problem-solve, get things done, and still make time for fun, especially during the internship. Assisting him also offered the opportunity to learn and grow; the tasks were rarely mindless. 

Sothy provided the emotional support and kicks in the pants that I needed for each step of my thesis. His Cambodian connections and experience were invaluable for me in getting approval and working out logistics to survey Cambodian students for my thesis. His statistics class taught me practical skills for making sense of my data. Along with my co-advisors, Dr. Alex Wiseman and Dr. Nikki Tannenbaum, he provided invaluable feedback throughout the writing process.

Many thanks also to the marvelous reseach scientist Whitney Szmodis for helping me interpret Sothy's directions, prioritize tasks, and figure out how to implement them. Whitney is a master encourager, a calming presence, and generally a great person to have around. She and Sothy make a good team.

It was great having Whitney (far right) there to launch the internships last summer

4. Thanks, Lee Iacocca, for funding my internship in Cambodia.

Interning at Caring for Cambodia (CFC) was a fantastic experience that taught me a lot and... no surprise here... raised more questions in my mind about Cambodian education. It improved my knowledge of Khmer language and culture, and gave me a firsthand glimpse into Cambodian public schools. I also got to collect my thesis data while there. It was also a great chance to build relationships with other Lehigh students and fellow interns, both in the CIE program and beyond.

Demonstrating a lesson at a seminar for ESL teachers
Lehigh's partnership with CFC is unique, allowing students to do research projects benefiting CFC, both from the US and on the ground in Cambodia. Many CIE students had the opportunity to visit for data collection. I think Lehigh is about the only place in the US where everyone in the room with me has visited Cambodia. That eased my transition back to the US, giving me a shared interest and experience with my classmates, as well as a fresh perspective on Cambodia as I heard their impressions. It took time before I could make it through the day without mentioning Cambodia to anyone; Lehigh offered an appropriate outlet for some of those conversations. 

5. Thanks for teaching me new skills. 

While at Lehigh, I've learned how to...

  • get Institutional Research Board approval
  • review someone else's journal article submission
  • write about regression analysis results
  • develop a grant proposal
  • build a website on WordPress
  • defend a thesis
...and more. I've been seriously impressed by the caliber of professors and the standard to which they hold students, who are up for the challenge.

Part of the "more" could be how to mingle and network, but I'm not sure I succeeded at this one. Students involved in the Lehigh-Caring for Cambodia partnership were invited to a social with distinguished alumni in New York City. We were encouraged to take the initiative and strike up conversations with them about the benefits of the partnership for us. I was determined to overcome the awkwardness and act outgoing. "Hi, are you John? I'm Chelsea. Nice to meet you." But the very first person I approached seemed uncomfortable with something I'd said. I couldn't put my finger on my faux pas for a couple minutes, until I asked him why the graduation year on his name tag was still in the future.  

"I'm Lehigh's president," he responded. Aha. I had no idea he'd be attending and hadn't put it together that the John Simon sipping wine with me was the same President Simon who'd e-mailed everyone on occasion. He was nice about it, but couldn't redeem the situation.

With "John," about 30 seconds before I crawled into a hole

6. Thanks for the language practice.

Even though Sothy insists on speaking English with me (it's much faster given my limited Khmer), I got to practice Khmer with our special guest for Cambodian Culture Night, as well as daily during my internship last summer. I had a classmate whose German is much better than mine and several with great French. Elsewhere in the US, I don't have many polyglot friends. 

Four of us pictured here are Francophone 

7. Thank you, fellow Cambodia enthusiasts, for being gracious when I put you in a tough spot. 

When I organized the Cambodian Culture Night on rather short notice, many of you came to my rescue and gamely jumped in to advertise, decorate, and cook... even though the end of the semester meant you had a ton of other work to do. You pushed through the technical difficulties and made it happen. What a relief! I owe you guys big time.

8. Thank you for making me laugh. 

From the "Who wants to be a volunteer?" video in International Development, to the Spurious Correlations website in Statistics, to Tricia's epic happy birthday song for Christi in Diversity, to all the cat memes in Research, to a running joke about Mao's nudist habits in Chinese Education, it's been a good time. Not to mention all the hilarious moments created by Zoom (a video conferencing app), such as when we left all the online students isolated in their own breakout room long after their a 5-minute discussion ended, or when they got to hear our mass confusion and consternation over a spider (or mouse?) in the classroom.

9. Thank you, CIE students and faculty, for enriching our discussions through your diverse cross-cultural experiences. 

You've lived in Switzerland and Japan and Chile and China and Saudi Arabia. You hail from Afghanistan and Indonesia and Norway and Latvia and South Africa. I could go on. 

Through you, I've learned about implications of Kyrgyz, Iranian, English, and Algerian cultures for their school systems. Through you, I've also learned about the diversity in US schools, whether the absence of women in California's history curriculum, or Mississippi's clusters of Japanese immigrants, or options for special needs students in Pennsylvania's Saucon Valley school district.

Cupcakes with flags for each country represented in our class, plus a couple with school colors or globes

10. Thanks for encouraging my questions.

I came to grad school hoping to work through some questions in my mind. Like any good research endeavor, it's left me with far more than when I started. But I think that's OK. Lehigh gave me space to think about and research a few of my incoming questions, and it gave me permission to ask a lot more as I continued reading and learning. It pushed me to challenge my assumptions, to examine people's motives, to be skeptical of wannabe "white saviors" (myself included) and words like "empowerment" and "developing." 

Sometimes it's been frustrating not to find more neat answers, but that's probably closer to real life. At least now I have a bigger framework in which to place my questions, knowledge of resources that might speak to them, and the awareness that theories are vital in coloring what facts I use to construct an answer. At first I resisted that idea, wanting "just the facts, please." Now I see why facts without theories are incomplete.

The cognitive dissonance was likewise frustrating but good for me. I was around a lot of people whose beliefs differed from mine - sometimes dramatically. At a few points, I seemed to be the lone dissenting voice. That's not a comfortable place to be, but it's a place where growth tends to result. And growth, more than a piece of paper or a chance to sit in a folding chair on a field, is the whole reason I came.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Help! Playlist

My thoughts have a way of running away from me. Though I like to think of myself as generally even-keeled, there are moments when I'm suddenly sucked into a cesspool of anxiety, self-pity, or resentment. I try to speak sense to myself, but sometimes my emotions' case seems watertight.

The thing is, I know intellectually that the lies I'm believing in those moments are just that - lies - even if there's a valid reason to be sad or disappointed or uncertain. I don't need my thoughts stuck on replay, looping and snowballing around the offending event or situation. I need to shift my attention to a bigger story. But at times, I need help to do so.

That's why I made this Help! playlist last fall. I compiled the songs that have most frequently reminded me, "This thing that's bothering you? It is NOT the whole story." In the moments when I'm gripped by negativity, these songs come in and say, "Hey, step outside with me. Let's get some fresh air." They're not all happy - some are laments, like Enter the Worship Circle's "Never Again." But instead of indulging in despair, they remind me to lay my concerns before my Almighty God.

It's gotten a lot of playtime lately. Sometimes when I'm studying, I put on the playlist preemptively to let truth flow through my thoughts. That was the case one night last week when I got a phone call out of the blue that threw me into an emotional whirlwind. After talking with this person and trying to encourage her, I came back to my laptop and resumed listening, still feeling shaken. It was in the middle of Kari Jobe's "Come to Me." I realized the effect it'd had in preparing me to be a calm presence for this caller. I instantly shared the link to it with her.

Nearly all these songs have words. The instrumental exception, "From the Ground Up," is from a soundtrack I love, "Many Beautiful Things," by Sleeping at Last. The true story told in the documentary - of an English woman who gives up a blossoming art career to serve God in North Africa - fits beautifully with this intricate, hopeful piece. I love the whole album, especially as study music, but this is my favorite track. It's the kind of song I'd consider walking down the aisle to, but because the film is about a single missionary, I know I don't have to wait for a wedding to appropriate this song for myself.

A few months ago, I searched for Sleeping at Last on YouTube and realized that in their original form, the soundtrack songs actually had vocals. I like the originals too, but they almost feel like meeting the child or spouse of a dear friend - a wonderful addition, and it's fun to watch them interact, but they rob some intimacy from the conversation. They're not about to join this playlist.

Here's a sampling from my Help! playlist. (When I had multiple songs by one artist, I just picked my favorite.) What songs would be on yours?

All Sons and Daughters - Oh How I Need You
Andrew Peterson - In the Night My Hope Lives On
Audrey Assad - I Shall Not Want
Casting Crowns - Who Am I
Enter the Worship Circle - Never Again
Fernando Ortega - Give Me Jesus
Gungor - Higher
Jadon Lavik - Take My Life
Jars of Clay - Thou Lovely Source of True Delight
Jeremy Riddle - Surrendered in Praise
Jon Foreman - The House of God Forever
Josh Garrels - Farther Along
Kari Jobe - Come to Me
Keith and Kristyn Getty - Still, My Soul, Be Still
Kristian Stanfill - Jesus Paid It All
Rend Collective - Immeasurably More
Rich Mullins - That Where I Am
Sara Groves - When the Saints
Sleeping at Last - From the Ground Up
Sovereign Grace - I Come Running

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Crazy about Cambodia? On honor, shame, and comfort zones

This post is adapted from a talk I gave at my church this month.

When people hear that I’ve spent 6 years in Cambodia and I plan to move back, they often say, “Wow, you must really love it.” 

And it’s true, I do really love it… most of the time. I loved teaching English and French at an international Christian school when I was there before, and I am excited to return this fall to disciple and train Cambodian teachers. In fact, I want to go deeper. I’m going to be leaving the international school, where I could speak English and have lots of American colleagues, to focus on working with Cambodians in their own language and culture.

But the other side of the story is, Cambodia is also way outside my comfort zone. After 6 years, there are still things I just don’t get about Cambodian culture. Some days I feel like Cambodia will never truly be my home. And I expected that discomfort before I ever got there, knowing that Cambodia is in Southeast Asia, on the other side of the world.

I didn’t go to Cambodia because I thought I would be crazy about it. I went because I knew that God is crazy about Cambodia. He made Cambodians in His image, and He’s bringing Cambodians to Himself in some amazing ways. One thing I really do love about life in Cambodia, though, is that leaving my comfort zone and exploring another culture has helped me to better understand the world, myself, and God.

Everyone likes stories, right? Let me share with you a few stories of things that have confused or frustrated me:
  • Some parents at my old school didn’t let their daughters play team sports because they worried their girls might be injured and end up with a scar. So? Why should the threat of a little white line on her knee keep her from joining her friends on the soccer field? 
  • Often when I got lost and stopped to ask people for directions, they would smile and say sure, but then they would tell me the wrong way to go. I’d end up even more lost than before. Is that their twisted sense of humor?
  • When I mentored public school teachers last summer, I asked one of them if he was free to meet at 9 and he said he was. Then at 9:30 he told me, “By the way, I should probably go teach my class. It started at 9.” Wait, you left students alone in the classroom for half an hour? Why didn’t you just tell me you were busy?
The key to understanding these incidents is the idea of honor and shame, which I've recently started learning about. Honor and shame are a big deal in Cambodia and much of the world, and missionaries are realizing that this truth has powerful implications for how we share the Gospel in these cultures. This 5-minute video explains it better than I can.


Can you see now how honor and shame help explain those frustrating incidents?
  • Parents didn’t want their girls to bear a scar because a scar would detract from the honor of their daughter, and by extension, their whole family. You may remember the song in the Disney movie Mulan, “You’ll bring honor to us all."
  •  The strangers giving directions lied about which way to go because they didn’t know either. They didn’t want to disappoint me or embarrass themselves by admitting their ignorance, so they tried to tell me no in a subtle, indirect way… but this dumb American missed the hint. I still don’t always recognize the difference between a confident, happy smile meaning "yes" and an awkward, hesitant smile meaning "probably not." 
  • The teacher started class half an hour late so he wouldn’t rush me as an experienced, knowledgeable teacher who was there to help him. He was showing respect and honor for me and what I had to say by giving me his attention. As mentioned in the video, he prioritized the event (my visit) over the time (for class to start).

The work and frustration of adjusting to Cambodians’ worldview has benefited me in the US too. For example, I’m currently getting a master’s degree at Lehigh University. Thinking about honor and shame has helped me build stronger friendships with international classmates. There are many people right here in Pennsylvania who see the world primarily in terms of honor and shame. In fact, honor is a value for most Americans, even if it may be much farther down the totem pole.

Living in an honor-shame culture has expanded my view of God, because God is not only the God of America but the God of all nations. The Gospel is about justice, about how God sent his innocent son to die for us guilty humans to right all our wrongs and take away our punishment. But for someone in Cambodia, where corruption reigns and judges decide cases based on connections and bribes, descriptions of God as our judge don't always resonate. What's cool is that the Gospel isn't only about justice. It’s also about honor, about how God sent his glorious son to die the most shameful death, naked on a cross in front of everyone, to accept us, the outcasts, and bring us into His royal family. The message of Christ is simple enough for children to grasp – “Jesus died for me” – and yet we can spend a lifetime contemplating it without seeing all its facets.

We Christians have been entrusted with a truth that sets prisoners free and brings the dead to life. It would be so selfish to hoard that truth for ourselves, our families, and our closest friends. Just like we steward our money, we’re called to steward the truth, by displaying it in our words and our actions every chance we get. Evangelism isn’t an annual event that the church staff coordinates; it’s a lifestyle that all Christ-followers are called to pursue daily. 

So I want to challenge you likewise to leave your comfort zone and love people who are not like you. If you’re not inclined to take a 24-hour plane trip to Cambodia, why don’t you look outside your front door? I bet you have neighbors who strongly disagree with your views on nutrition, money, and politics. At your workplace, there may be people with disabilities, addictions, and family difficulties you’ve never experienced. There are people in Doylestown who have other skin colors, who speak other languages, who are Hindu and Mormon and atheist and Muslim.

We’re a diverse nation. But you know what? So is the family of God. Jesus didn’t love people because they shared His tastes and his background. He loved people because they bore God’s image, and because they desperately needed Him, and because God is love.

Pastor Ronaldo recently preached on Colossians 3:11. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” When we get to heaven, we’re going to share eternity with people from all these backgrounds and many more. And in our incredible diversity we’ll have incredible unity in loving the One who called us all out of darkness and into His marvelous light.

If you’re worried that you can’t love people like Jesus loves them, you’re right. I’ve tried to do it on my own and maybe you have too. It's exhausting. But the value of leaving our comfort zone and loving people who are different from us is simple:

When we risk needing more of God, 
we end up SEEING more of God. 

Only God’s Spirit in us can empower us to love people the way God loves them. Even when they’re different from us. Even when loving them doesn’t come easily.

Who is that neighbor...
                                           that colleague...
                                                                         that parent of your child’s friend... 
who’s outside your comfort zone? 

Are you praying for eyes to see God’s image stamped on him or her? 

Are you starting conversations even when you’re not sure what to say? 
Are you pressing through the awkwardness, 
            inviting them to share stories and time and meals? 
Are you asking the Holy Spirit to fill you with His love and power? 

God is crazy about all kinds of people because He made them. And when we draw near to Him, that love is contagious.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Culture Map and international feedback

I recently read Erin Meyer's The Culture Map, a fascinating look at how various global cultures handle similar business situations in different ways. Meyer consults with firms to help them sort out challenges that stem from cross-national teams or clients. While I'm not a businessperson, it's absolutely relevant to my study-abroad experiences and my work in missions/nonprofits. It's an easy read but rich in food for thought and conversation. A few points were review for me, such as linear versus flexible time scheduling, but I was surprised by how much of the content I'd never seen in other books on culture.

Meyer's basic premise is that a spectrum exists for eight scales, such as Trusting, Scheduling, and Disagreeing. For example, on the Evaluating scale, the spectrum ranges from valuing direct negative feedback to indirect negative feedback. Every culture is filled with individuals on a sort of bell curve for each scale, but the mid-point of each culture's bell curve, what's considered "normal" in that culture, will fall in a specific place on the scale. 

In evaluation, cultures like Russia, Israel, and France tend to practice direct negative feedback. They might use upgraders to emphasize their point: "This proposal is completely inappropriate for our company's needs!" The US and Argentina are more in the middle and often use downgraders to soften statements: "This proposal is not quite what we are looking for." Japan and Thailand strongly favor indirect negative feedback and shroud unpleasant messages in politeness to avoid embarrassing the offending party. None of them are right or wrong - just different.

When cultures collide, meaning can be tricky to decipher even when the words are understood. Thus, there is a risk of conflict and stymied work. Without adequately considering culture, it may seem like a problem with the individual. Meyer writes of a French employee and an American boss. The employee thought her boss was delighted with her. "He just gushed in my performance review a couple months ago! He barely mentioned anything I need to work on." Meanwhile, the boss was frustrated. "She's capable of great work. But I told her several specific changes to make, and she's ignored them. Her response is unacceptable."

The problem? The boss was using the classic American "sandwich method": precede and follow every bit of negative feedback with a compliment. He was also softening the negatives with downgraders. The French woman, used to employers who are stingy with praise and open with critiques, almost missed the constructive criticism. She was later shocked to learn how close she'd come to losing her job. Once she knew how to interpret his feedback, they got along great.

This anecdote reminded me of several incidents in my personal experience. When I studied abroad in France, I learned that French schools grade most assignments and courses on a scale from 1 (worst) to 20 (best), but it's challenging to earn a 14 and nearly impossible to get anything higher than that. 14 and up is the equivalent of an A in the US, even though 14/20 = 70%, or an American C-. 

My French host mother was disgusted one day when her son in university received an assignment back. "The professor wrote 'Unimprovable' and gave it a 14. What's the point of having the scores of 15-20 if you never use them even for a perfect paper?" Likewise, teachers don't say things like "Great job" unless they are seriously impressed, and they're not shy about saying, "That was terrible." Knowing that helped me to adjust my expectations for the grades and feedback I would receive that semester at the local university.

Teachers in France don't go through quite as many of these stickers.

During our first year in Cambodia, a Scottish colleague adapted easily to Cambodian culture but found our North American colleagues a challenge at first. She was exasperated a few times over comments from the Canadian principals. "I spent a couple hours trying various arrangements for my classroom. When they came in and saw me working on it, they told me to try it a completely different way. Don't they trust me? How can they tell me what to do when they've spent one minute thinking about it and I've spent most of the morning?"

It soon became clear to me that they'd heard her express doubt that she'd found the best way, and they'd tried to encourage her by brainstorming new ideas. "What if you tried it this way?" But what sounded to my American ears like a casual suggestion was translating to her as a Command from the Chief, a condemnation of her current approach. Typical of her native land, she had a habit of verbally downplaying her confidence in her own ideas, even when she'd invested a lot in them and was actually pretty close to a final decision. She was reading a lot more weight into the principals' suggestions than they intended, and it left her feeling micro-managed. Obviously personality was also a component: they were easygoing and thick-skinned, even for North American culture, whereas she was careful to avoid stepping on others' toes, even by Scottish standards. She gradually learned to take their comments with a grain of salt - and I learned through our chats to think twice about my words before offering her advice or ideas.

Where was this when we needed it?

If Scottish people tend to be less direct about criticism than Americans, Cambodian culture is far more subtle even than Scotland. My housemates and I used to schedule occasional meetings with our house helper, since she usually came while we were working and we rarely saw her. One meeting came shortly after an incident involving a necklace that had gone missing for a week before mysteriously reappearing; she wasn't the only potential culprit, so we let it go. At the meeting, we said that we weren't ready to give her the raise she'd requested because she had been slipping on several tasks. We gave a few examples: bathroom mirrors hadn't been cleaned in a few weeks, her sweeping and mopping didn't reach the corners, etc. We asked her to improve her performance in those areas. She was pretty quiet. That evening, she texted us to say that after about eight years of working for us and/or previous residents of our home, she was resigning. We were dismayed. We had no desire to look for someone new, and we knew she'd been happy with us until that point.

We called a Cambodian friend to help us navigate. She explained that our forthright criticism and the presence of all five housemates at the meeting would have felt very intimidating to our helper. She probably feared we were about to fire her unless she took our hint and resigned to save face with her family and friends. Once we called her back and explained that her position was in no danger, our helper was relieved and immediately rescinded her resignation.

Meyer gives helpful advice on navigating these pitfalls in work situations. For example, she counseled the American boss to clearly explain his style of performance reviews before beginning. "I like to acknowledge my employees' positive contributions before going on to the meat of the review, the things I need you to change." That would have given his French employee the cue to listen carefully for constructive criticism and to take it seriously.

Meyer also offers tips on giving negative feedback to those from a more indirect culture - tips she learned from a perceptive Indonesian friend who helped her deliver an unwelcome message to a respected senior colleague from Indonesia.

1. Don't give feedback to an individual in front of a group. (Even positive feedback, which may embarrass them.)

2. Blur the message. This means...
   a. Give the feedback slowly, over a period of time, so that it gradually sinks in.
   b. Use food and drink to blur an unpleasant message.
   c. Say the good and leave out the bad.
(For example, if you're reviewing four documents and two are sloppy but two are excellent, focus on what makes the latter ones great, and they'll get the hint about the sloppy ones.

After six years in Cambodia, indirect communication is still not my forte or comfort zone. When I return this fall as a teacher trainer with World Team, I expect to be working more closely with Cambodians than I did at Logos. I foresee myself re-reading and using the above tips and the rest of this book more than once.

While I know it will continue to be a learning curve for quite some time, I am encouraged by Meyer's use of a French proverb: Quand on connait sa maladie, on est à moitié guéri. "When you know your sickness, you are halfway cured." I don't always understand my culture or the assumptions I bring with me from home. But at least now I know that I have them, that they differ from others' cultures and assumptions, and that the differences matter. Along with the humility to ask questions and adapt to other people's preferences, that awareness will get me far.